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Upgrading the Safety & Security of Research Reactors

by by Kirstie Hansen

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Fresh Fuel at Reactors

  • Code of Conduct
  • The Code of Conduct on the Safety of Research Reactors goes before the IAEA General Conference in September 2004 for adoption, having been approved by the Board of Governors at its March 2004 meeting.
  • The Code establishes "best practice" guidelines for the licensing, construction and operation of research reactors. At its core, "the safety of the public, the environment and the workers," said IAEA Director of Nuclear Installation Safety, Mr. Ken Brockman.
  • Research reactors were excluded from the Convention on Nuclear Safety when it was drawn-up in the early 1990s. The need for an overarching Code of Conduct came to a head in a resolution at the 2000 IAEA General Conference, prompted by safety concerns as many of the worlds' research reactors approached the end of their originally planned lifespans. Increased fears of terrorist threats following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States also helped to fuel desire for a Code of Conduct, Mr. Brockman said. Just less than half of the world's 272 research reactors still operate using highly enriched uranium - a key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.
  • The Code is a non-binding international legal agreement, where States determine their own level of commitment to its guidance. The Code was derived from more detailed international standards that have been promulgated for the safe day-to-day operation, construction, shutdown and decommission of research reactors, Mr. Brockman said. "It will pave the way for the continued evolution of these standards," he said.
  • The Agency has already carried out numerous safety and security missions at research reactors which, among other things, has helped to improve the security infrastructure at reactors.

Stocks of unused, fresh HEU fuel also become a liability when a research reactor shuts down. Fresh HEU fuel - material not yet used in a nuclear research reactor - is low in radioactivity. This makes it far easier for a thief to transport than the highly radioactive spent fuel wastes.

"What we are talking about is weapons-grade material that is not self-protecting - material that is not so radioactive that people can't just pick it up and carry it away," Mr. Krass said.

The IAEA is helping Member States to transfer unwanted fresh HEU stocks back to the country that supplied it. In August 2002 it helped transfer 45 kilograms (enough fissile material to make two nuclear bombs) from Serbia and Montenegro back to Russia, to be blended down to low-enriched uranium (LEU) that cannot be used in a nuclear weapon. Most recently it assisted Libya in March 2004. In December 2003 it assisted Bulgaria and in September 2003, Romania. More return shipments are planned in other countries.

Stop HEU Trade

Currently about 130 research reactors around the world still run on weapons-grade HEU. In an article "A Safer World" published in The Economist, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei called for an end to trade in HEU.

"Existing facilities around the world that use high-enriched uranium applications - for example, to produce medical radioisotopes - should continue, gradually but irreversibly, to be converted to low-enriched processes."

The Agency is helping countries do exactly that. It actively supports them to convert their research reactors from burning HEU to LEU. In conjunction with the US "Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors" (RERTR) programme the Agency is helping to reduce and eventually eliminate international commerce in HEU for research reactors.

So far 29 reactors have been fully converted to LEU and a further seven are in the process of converting. Countries seeking IAEA assistance include Brazil and Romania.

Safety and security is a twin challenge of rising proportions as more and more research reactors are shut down or decommissioned this decade. The IAEA stands ready to help but with limited resources improvements come slowly, says Mr. Ritchie. Signs fortunately are pointing to more international support and co-operation in months and years ahead.

Kirstie Hansen, IAEA Division of Public Information. For more information see the feature series on the IAEA web site www.iaea.org.

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